By all accounts, the Beth Tzedec Singers are a remarkable vocal group. The synagogue itself is effusive in its praise of its in-house choir, calling it “fabulous” and touting its “smooth signature sound [that] makes attendance at our Shabbat and holiday services a unique musical and inspiring experience.”
But as of Dec. 12, all that was scheduled to change when the 16-member choir was to deliver its final performance.
According to an email to members from synagogue ritual committee chairs Leonard Cappe and Bill Sklar, the choir announced it is resigning en masse. The move was prompted by a requirement that “members of the choir affirm their Jewish identity by Dec. 31 in order to remain in the choir,” Cappe and Sklar write in their email.
Jews and non-Jews tied together by the love of synagogue music
“Our wonderful choir consists of both Jews and non-Jews. The inclusion of non-Jews in our choir predates Chazzan [Simon] Spiro. Our choir regards itself as a family tied together by a love of the music of the synagogue. They do not wish to have their family broken up, and as a result, they have decided to leave as a group, effective this coming Shabbat Dec. 12, 2015,” the email states.
Cappe and Sklar go on to say the resignation of the choir “will have a significant impact on our Shabbat and Yom Tov services.”
But it’s the question of whether non-Jews are entitled to daven (pray) on behalf of the congregation on those holy days that is at the heart of the disagreement over the choir’s future.
According to a tshuvah (a response to a question of Jewish law) by the shul’s senior rabbi, Baruch Frydman-Kohl, it is inappropriate and contrary to precedent for non-Jews to lead certain prayers.
The chazzan (cantor) and by extension, the choir, is the shaliach tzibur (representative of the congregation) in prayer, Rabbi Frydman-Kohl notes. From the first time non-Jews were permitted to join Jewish choirs in Reform congregations in the 19th century, questions were raised “whether the most sacred parts of a service should be sung by people unable to enter into the spirit of the religious community they were meant to represent.”
The rabbi added: “Those who serve as choristers should be part of the covenantal community. In the most basic sense, this is the role of a shaliach tzibur and what the prayer leader does.”
The Conservative movement adopted that position in 1954, reviewed it and affirmed it several times since, he noted.
But Walter Soles, who’s been with the choir for more than 20 years, said its members “feel it is demeaning” to sign the document being asked of them. “We rejected it, considering we had been there quite some time. It seemed kind of silly.”
Soles said the choir’s decision to resign was made unanimously last summer after a round of Internet correspondence.
Nevertheless, “We sang the High Holidays… We are connected to the synagogue, and feel an obligation to it,” he said.
Rabbi Frydman-Kohl told The CJN “the issue has been around for a long time” and was raised in meetings with the synagogue’s lay leadership. Three years ago he tried to clarify the shul’s position and bring the policy regarding the choir into line with the synagogue’s policy on other issues, such as marriage and burial.
The choir was told months ago of the impending change, and an April deadline was extended to December, he said.
He acknowledged, however, that “we were taken aback by the resignations.” He had expected the members to affirm their Jewish heritage so that, in future, non-Jewish choir members would simply refrain from participating in prayers that recognize God and affirm faith, such as the Shema and Shmoneh Esrei, as well as affirm Jewish peoplehood. That would leave many morning psalms that could have the choir’s full participation, he said.
Soles, however, was unaware of that possible compromise. In an email to a member of the synagogue’s music committee, he stated, “You mean you’re willing to turn your back on the group that is there every Shabbat, rain, snow or shine; a group that brings you such prominence; a group whose only wishes are to help make your prayers and presence more beautiful and meaningful? Honestly, I wish I could understand. I can’t… help me.”
Interestingly, neither Rabbi Frydman-Kohl nor Soles knew how many non-Jews were in the choir, and the rabbi said Cantor Spiro will have to recruit a new group.